By Malini Menon
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Police have rescued 24 girls and shut down a care home that had been operating illegally in northern India after a youngster living there fled and complained to officers about sexual exploitation.
They arrested four people on suspicion of trafficking and closed the home that has been operating in Deoria district in northern Uttar Pradesh, 325 km (200 miles) from the state capital Lucknow, police said after Monday's rescue.
This is the second instance of sexual abuse in homes for destitute children in less than a month after 29 girls were alleged to have been raped and tortured in Bihar state, sparking national outrage and demands for such homes to be investigated.
Sexual and physical abuse are common in care homes, where many children are not orphans but placed in care by parents who are too poor to feed, clothe and shelter them, campaigners say.
"We have sealed the shelter home and arrested a couple who managed the shelter," said Ganesh Prasad Saha, a senior police official in Deoria. He did not give details about the other two arrested.
A case of alleged trafficking and illegal adoption has been registered.
Local media reports said 18 girls were missing from the Uttar Pradesh shelter home run by the couple, but Saha said the police could not confirm that.
Deoria district magistrate Amit Kishore confirmed the four arrests and said the authorities had previously revoked the shelter home's licence, but it had remained open.
Media reports said Uttar Pradesh's Women and Child Welfare Department revoked the licence in June 2017 after detecting large-scale irregularities.
India has about 7,300 care shelters, which are home to some 230,000 children, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights estimates. About 1,300 of them are unregistered, which means they operate illegally with little or no oversight.
On Tuesday, India's Supreme Court criticised the state government in Bihar for allowing such shelters to run without oversight.
"You are financing these shelter homes. But such incidents are happening," the court said.
More than 100 cases of women being raped were reported daily in India in 2016, according to the latest available government data, and it has been tightening its rape laws.
It introduced the death penalty this year for those raping girls under 12.
(Reporting by Malini Menon; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Alison Williams)